While many of their friends returned to school last week after the summer break, Mamadou and Bamba sadly returned to work in the gold mines in southern Mali.
Both are from farming families whose crops failed to yield a large enough harvest last year resulting in both boys having to find work to support their families.
A survey carried out by four aid agencies in Mali found that there had been an increase in the number of such children who left home to find work to help.
“The increase of child labour (noted by 75% of the respondents) was believed to largely be in the areas of domestic work (primarily affecting girls) and work in mines (affecting slightly more boys than girls),” according to the survey led by the International Rescue Committee.
Some of these were sent either on their own or in the care of people outside the family. The report calls these “unaccompanied” children. Others might have been sent to live with relatives - the report calls these “separated” children.
“My arms hurt, my back hurts, my chest hurts”
Bamba, a 15 year old, is an unaccompanied child working in the Bayan gold mine close to the Malian/Guinean border. He has come south with a group of friends from his village of Kati – about 100km north of the Banyan gold mines. A man in his village financed the trip in exchange for half of the gold they find. They’ve been here for several months and have found nothing so far but the painstaking work continues.
From sunrise to sunset Bamba does a variety of jobs. One is to take turns digging a vertical shaft through mud down to bed rock and then cutting chunks of the rock and sending it to the surface to be tested for gold. If there is no gold, they keep digging until they find a vein. Today, the shaft is about 90 feet (27.5m) deep. They dig with with nothing more than a short-handled pick axe.
This task is not for the claustrophobic. The shafts are about 3 feet (0.9m) long by 2 feet (0.6m) wide and pitch black as one descends, climbing down makeshift scaffolding which is hewed from tree trunks – another one of Bamba’s tasks.
“I would prefer to be in school. I want to be a doctor to heal children but I have to work and send money home for my family,” he said.
“My arms hurt, my back hurts, my chest hurts,” he added as he opened his palms to reveal numerous calluses from cutting log.
Gold mining has been Mali’s main export since 1999. The country is the third largest gold producer in Africa after South Africa and Ghana. Since 2005 Mali has produced about 50 tons of gold per year worth more than US$2.9 billion at September 2011 prices according to a Malian Ministry of Mines report.
20% of miners are children
This type of traditional mining in southern and western Mali is known as artisanal or small-scale mining and is carried out by individuals, groups or families with minimal or no mechanisation using labour-intensive excavation and processing methods. Artisanal mining accounts for about four tons of gold per year.
About 10-metres away, is another teenager, Mamadou who is cutting through bedrock 100 feet (30m) underground.
“I would also like to be in school and would like to have a white collar job,” the soft-spoken Mamadou, said constantly glancing at his father as though to confirm that it is okay to answer our questions.
Similar to Bamba he complains of pain all over his body. He’s here with his father, a farmer who takes on this second job in times of bad harvest.
“This is the first time that we have worked the mines in the rainy season,” Faboure said. “It’s dangerous in the rainy season because the wells fill up with water but we haven’t a choice.”
He would normally harvest two tonnes of millet but last year it was 500kg, the worst in recent years.
Street children numbers up
He is of the opinion that the days of good harvests are over and the family income must be supplemented. While he has other children in school, he has decided that Mamadou’s future is not through school by working in the field and the mines.
“If I make a good find, I’ll be able to buy a house or a car,” said Mamadou with a big smile.
It is believed that there are about 350 artisanal mining sites across western and southern Mali attracting between 100,000 to 200,000 people. The International Labour Organisation estimates that about 20 per cent of these are children.
Children affected by the food crises are not only working in the mines but also on the streets as beggar boys while girls work in homes.
Salimata who turned 18-years old this year, was sent by her family to work as a domestic with a family in central Mali five years ago. After three years, she left the house in search of a cousin in the capital Bamako who referred her to the NGO Enda Mali who has been teaching her a trade. Salimata did not want to speak of her experience of her work in that home but she said that she was happy to be learning a trade in tie-dying and batik. She wants to open her own business some day.
One of her classmates, 15-year old Youssouf, came to the capital with his father in early 2012 to find work after their family’s bad harvest. Shortly afterwards, his father died, and he had the grim task of taking his father’s body back to the village for burial. He returned with his mother but soon found himself begging on the streets of Bamako.
“It was very scary,” he said. “Sometimes I earned 100 CFA (20 cents) but it is not enough because my mother owes 50,000 CFA in rent”.
He too was rescued from the streets by Enda Mali and is learning to be a tailor.
Mamadou Sacko from Enda said that since the food crisis and conflict in the north he had seen more than a 50 per cent increase of street children. They have already taken in more than double the number of children than they budgeted for this year and at the current rate, it will triple by year end.
Plan Mali said they are now designing programmes to be able to help children displaced by both the food crisis and the conflict.